Coriander stood at the end of the dock and watched the stately approach of the half-dozen ships against the tidal flow of the Smelt River. She was conscious of Thunderchild's solid strength to one side of her, and of Dockmaster Hawthorn and Ironfist, the colony's grizzled old security chief, at the other. They were all dressed in their modest best for the occasion.
At least it is not raining. That was no small concession to ceremony on the part of the wilderness -- most of the morning had been one long downpour. But for the moment at least, there were patches of blue sky overhead, and the sun was peeking through the grey boil of clouds.
The leading trade ship flew the Senate's sigil flag at the peak of its mast, and a single figure dressed in brilliant crimson and gold stood near the prow, flanked by a richly dressed delegation of her own. The shawl around her shoulders was fringed with golden tassels; silk ribbons the colors of emerald and sapphire fluttered from her sleeves, from her bodice, and from the golden sash around her waist. As the ship sidled up to the dock, Coriander could see the new mata's elaborate crown of braids, from which flowed loose curls and slighter wisps of ribbon. So is that the fashion now, back in the capital? Coriander could not help but think, sick at heart at the prospect of having to return to such concerns.
Even without the silks and the brilliant colors, Mata Seaflower was a lushly beautiful woman. She accepted the captain's arm in disembarking, and her poised steps and eloquent gestures were gracefully languid. Mata Seaflower would arrive attended by her kukota, Coriander knew. Three of the delegation disembarking behind Seaflower and the ship's captain must be members of Seaflower's household. One was a lean, handsome man who stood straight but not necessarily tall in a sapphire tuyma coat, and the other was a crippled younger woman who staggered as she walked, and who was dressed in the same crimson as her sister-wife but without the wealth of ribbons. A third figure proved to be a stout woman in the dark robes of an indentured servant, her grey hair shorn close to the scalp as befitting one in willing service to the rich and powerful. Coriander looked again across the deck of the ship, seeking among the jacketed sailors for a glimpse of the new mata's senior husband -- because even here, on the remote shores of the Eya-Lu-Ramat colony, there had been talk of the exploits of Longlance, the Dowager Coralpetal's favored grandson. But of that famous personage Coriander saw nothing, and her attention by necessity must return to Mata Seaflower and the ship's captain as they joined her, at the bottom of the the ship's gangway.
Seaflower was smiling with serene pleasure as she raised both hennaed palms in welcome. "Peace, fortune and prosperity," Coriander's replacement said. Her voice was rich and musical, and the fragrance of her spicy perfume rose up around them as the two women pressed their hands together in ritual greeting.
"And each to you as well," Coriander replied, the rote answer to the ancient goodwish. "You are welcome here, and the colony has come to greet you."
The whole colony had poured out of their homes and down to the riverside, Ebea and Bukno-Baha alike. It had been 10 years since the last mata had been sent to Ramat Colony --and never had an incoming mata been of such high social rank, or from families as wealthy or as famed. In a colony so small that sailors and captains of trade ships were celebrities, nothing this exciting had happened since the arrival of the Bukno-Baha twelve and a half years ago. Coriander was aware of the press of them behind her at the end of the dock, and heard the excited buzz of their chatter. She didn't have to look back at her people to know that every child of the Empire behind her was wide-eyed in awe at the sight of their new mata. Coriander's replacement was a vision of wealth and power, and a reminder to the Ebea of every comfort they had been denied on this remote shore.
There was a fresh gust of wind from across the bay, whipping through Seaflower's multitude of ribbons and cascading curls. Coriander saw the worried glance her replacement shot back toward the bay, and at the solid grey curtain of rain that was drifting in from the sea. The woman had to be freezing beneath those rich, desert-woven silks. Coriander tried to restrain a sense of satisfaction at that.
"I am retiring mata Coriander," Coriander said, and brushed Thunderchild's arm as she introduced him as well. "This is my mate, Thunderchild. These are Dockmaster Hawthorn and Security Officer Ironfist. We all bid you welcome, and hope your journey here was an easy one."
Seaflower's lush smile faltered, and there was an exquisite shimmer of tears in her eyes. "My senior husband, Longlance, caught a fever in Port Sedka. He died three nights ago. We will need to make all proper arrangements, and see that his ashes are returned home. High Aim and her captain depart with you and your party."
Coriander felt her face blanch. "I am so terribly sorry," she said, aghast at such news.
"What is it the Suft say? There was a saying my husband was fond of: ‘Death is nothing and pain is nothing, but cowardice is crime and disgrace, and thus the greatest punishments.’ He whispered those words to me, as he passed. I take comfort in them now," Seaflower said, as a perfect tear rolled down her flawless cheek. "It is the bitterest of blows, for my husband was so looking forward to experiencing the wonders of this frontier for himself. We will strive to do his brave memory justice here." The woman took a moment to regain her diplomatic composure, then introduced her surviving kukota. "My sister-wife Sparrowhawk, and our husband Quicksilver."
Coriander pressed palms in welcome with each, murmuring words of consolation. Quicksilver looked bravely stoic from the loss of his older brother, while Sparrowhawk's narrow face was swollen from weeping.
"If you will all follow me," Thunderchild said, gesturing back toward the colony's palisade walls. "Before the rains return, let me welcome you to our home -- for our home is now yours."
"We would be most grateful," Quicksilver replied.
The crowd made way for them as the newcomers were led back to the village. Seaflower walked alongside Coriander, smiling serenely as Coriander pointed out the village's landmarks as their delegation passed -- chief among them, the cobbled central square with the deep, clean-water well. The entire colony had made efforts to look its best for the occasion -- much to the amusement of the Bukno-Baha, whose idea of cleaning house was to move their sprawling cluster of conical leather tents, outside the colony's walls, to a fresh campsite, leaving wildlife and weather to erase the mess left behind.
Suddenly, Coriander was seeing all her community -- the colony where she and her husband had invested the past 10 years of their lives and nurtured like the child they could never have -- suddenly, she was seeing it with fresh eyes. The stout palisades to keep out the wildlife. The sturdy wooden homes, whitewashed but lacking the bright and colorful paints of a well-to-do neighborhood of the Empire. The grey skies and the steady rains that came in the spring; the familiar mud, walkways paved only with sand, windows of low-quality and uncolored glass, moss growing everywhere in the damp... This place she was so deeply proud of would look like no more than a shanty-town after the wealth of Ebea City, just like she and Thunderchild, in their modest home-woven wool and work-cloth, looked like beggars when compared to the brilliant silks and jewelry of gem-and-gold which Mata Seaflower and her kukota glittered with.
Coriander could not help but wonder if Seaflower already regretted this transfer. The woman made all of the right words of interest, and asked the right questions of inquiry at the right moments. But Coriander couldn't stop seeing those fragile silk ribbons, and thinking how quickly the rain would ruin them. Whereas, Coriander felt as though the grey skies and rains had nourished her. As remote as Ramat was, it was her home, in a way she feared she would never feel for a place again. She knew that Thunderchild welcomed their return to the mainland, and was thrilled by the prospect of their next assignment to the vibrant city of Voadene. But Coriander wished for all of the world that she she were staying here at Ramat, and her heart broke anew each morning, when she rose afresh to the prospect of having to leave it.
What must Mata Seaflower be thinking of what she sees here? Coriander could not help but wonder, stealing a glance at the new mata's beautiful, serene face. Can she ever think of this place as home?
Seaflower smiled, and smiled, and smiled some more, until the muscles of her face were aching. Only a lifetime of diplomatic training kept her from screaming and tearing at her hair in despair, as the reality of their exile was hammered brutally home.
Perhaps it was not intended to be an exile, but exile it was. Longlance and Quicksilver had pleaded with her to accept the assignment, when she had called in every favor she could in hopes of getting the posting to Voadene. Voadene was crowded with foreigners, certainly -- but they were wealthy foreigners, and the markets were crowded with exotic goods, and every night would mean a new social event...
Here, in this mouldering, wretched place, they were sat down at a plank table in a cramped, plank-floored house which was more shanty than villa, and served up what the locals considered a feast -- an under-spiced meal of roasted game, braised local fungus, and boiled greens, with pan-bread, clarified butter, and pungent goat cheese. The room felt close and over-crowded, it was underlit, and everything had a fecund taint from the sea.
Longlance would have loved this, Seaflower thought bitterly to herself. Her husband would have thought it a grand adventure, and made immediate plans to tromp off into the dripping woods with those poor, tent-dwelling foreigners who were so at home in such wilderness, danger and muck. Quicksilver was already coaxing the conversation into his favorite territory -- seasonal yield expectations for gathering the incense tree sap. It was Quicksilver's long-range plan to find a way to transplant an orchard of the delicate trees back to the mainland, a feat many others had attempted before him and failed at, but which held the promise of vast wealth should he succeed. Even Sparrowhawk was looking far more cheerful, now that they'd finally arrived -- no doubt she would stick her long nose into everything and meddle, but that could not prove too much embarrassment here. It was a tiny blessing, but Seaflower had to find what blessings she could from this terrible debacle.
It was unfair to call this flyspeck a colony of the Empire! Seaflower tried not to despair -- but it was a struggle she feared she was losing. Eya-Lu-Rama was even more remote and barbaric than she had feared. The next five years until she went home again to the capital could not pass fast enough. Quicksilver and Sparrowhawk would likely enjoy the challenge -- but Seaflower was already miserable, and they'd hardly been here an hour yet.
Seaflower stole a glance at the serene expression worn by the retiring mata. Coriander and her husband Thunderchild -- a fine, strong-shouldered fellow, she could not help but notice -- they were both gone grey at the temples. They looked like peasant farmers or shepherds in their rough wools and linens -- the rich merchants and the royalty of Voadene would hardly know what to make of them. Seaflower wondered how much of the golden amber this wilderness was renowned for they had secreted away. If the rumors were true of what could be scooped out of the lake beds and stream-sides here, they surely had a fortune sewn into their hems and hidden in their travel chests. Longlance and Quicksilver had both promised her that whatever social deprivations she might endure here at Eya-Lu-Ramat, they were at least guaranteed to go home again with their family's wealth restored.
You must be laughing at me! Seaflower thought with some heat, despising the other woman's calm, cool demeanor. Here's a fool come to take your place, so you can make your escape back to civilization! To Voadene! I campaigned so hard for years for that position -- how did you manage to steal it away from me, lodged as you are on the backside of the world?
She kept smiling, knowing that for the next five years, her success in this place would be dependent on never allowing her true thoughts and feelings to leak. Remember how terrible Azati was at first, Seaflower told herself sternly. It was an exile-posting, yet I turned every misfortune I faced there into a political triumph. This dismal place can prove just as profitable. Think. If a plain creature like Coriander can turn this posting into stepping stones to Voadene, what can I do with it? Quicksilver expects to uncover fabulous wealth. If so, then nothing will stop me from rising to the Senate. Ki-i-Mata even. Patience. And cleverness. And above all else -- smile and make nice and never let the commoners know how you despise them.
The stern words she spoke to herself were far more refreshing than the weak herbal tea she had been served. Seaflower knew how to affect a sparkle, and did so now, listening to whatever prattle the dockmaster was going on about. She even included Coriander and Thunderchild in the glow of her attention, banishing her jealousy with a firm hand. If those I replace managed to flourish here, then so can I, she thought with rich self-confidence. Flourish and prosper. Coriander has an earnest, honest reputation -- she's not known for her imagination, or for her ambition. Yet she turned this miserable place into a ladder to Voadene! I know there is wealth to be found here -- Longlance was certain of it, and Quicksilver remains so. Our time here in Ramat will remain only temporary. I need only smile as I soldier through this exile, and I shall never forget: this wretched place is just one long, lonely stepping stone. We will use it to our own ends, and when we leave it for home, we will carry new-won wealth and power home to the Empire with us.
Yet Seaflower could not help stealing another glance at the outgoing mata's plain, serene countenance, and wondering privately. How do you do accomplish it? Surviving in this desolate place? I would trade you anything right now, in this moment, if only I could return home to the mainland, and leave you here in my stead.
Seaflower allowed herself one moment of sweeping self-pity, then ruthlessly bottled up the despair and tucked it away. As much as she hated it, this wretched outpost of civilization was now her home, and Seaflower would ensure she made the most of it.